A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“Before I turn 67 – next March – I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like. If you want to talk first, Trollope works for me.”
Thus ran the advertisement that Jane Juska placed in the lonely hearts column of The New York Review of Books. She was inundated with replies and what happened next became the subject of her best-selling memoir – “A Round-Heeled Woman”.
Sharon Gless subsequently optioned the rights to the book and the resultant stage play opened to almost universal critical acclaim at the Hammersmith Riverside in November. The production has just moved to the Aldwych Theatre where it is running until the 14th of January.
Jane Juska made time in an insanely busy schedule to answer a few questions for us about life, love and Jane Austen, and we discovered a woman who doesn’t believe in mincing words:
VL: First of all, welcome to Vulpes Libris. It’s great to have the opportunity to talk to you and to ask a few of the questions that have been bobbing around in my head ever since I read “A Round-Heeled Woman” about three years ago.
Saying that ‘A Round Heeled Woman’ is about sex is like saying ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is about gay cowboys – it’s both inaccurate and misleading; and I suspect that anyone who came to the book expecting raunch would have gone away severely disgruntled. In fact, I’ve read several reviews plainly written by people who expected pornography, bless ‘em. It IS very forthright, though. Do people seem a bit wary – or even slightly – when they first meet you, this nice, respectable-looking lady who should be writing books on jam recipes, or knitting or something?
JJ: Well, “Brokeback Mountain” is about gay cowboys and my book is about sex. Thank you for putting that fine movie and my book into the same sentence. Both movie and book unnerve people, scare a lot of them off so that they miss the more important good parts. Those people who meet me seem curious and, actually, relieved that I’m not dressed in leather and then pleased that I look more or less like them—or their mothers. They take permission from my ostensible respectability. Do you think there were cowboys who turned gay after seeing Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie? Just asking.
VL: On balance … probably not. Did the idea of turning your story into a book occur to you before, during or after the event – so to speak? And, given that it was a book with no easily identifiable market … How difficult was it to find a publisher?
JJ: The book came after the events and before others; it was an attempt to clear my head and make sense of my unusual and sometimes chaotic experiences. I chose an agent from the Literary Marketplace which I got in the library; sent the ms. off to a woman whose name I did not know, just picked it out from the LMP and whammo! Several houses went after it; I got to choose. Unusual, I know. I still can’t believe it.
VL: Early on in the book you said, “My idea of being a woman involved a man” … several years – and men – down the road, do you still think that?
JJ: Intellectually and theoretically, I do not believe that being a woman involves a man, and yet while I feel like a whole person, I feel more like a whole womanly person when a man comes around to remind me. I know that I am lucky especially at my age to have the perfect lover, whom Katharine Hepburn described as “one who lives nearby and visits often.”
VL: Have you stayed friends with the men you became closest to – Robert, Graham …?
JJ: I have, except for Robert, who died. For more about all of them, you can read “Unaccompanied Women” where I am still sorting things out.
VL: The subject matter being a bit, well, tricky – A Round Heeled Woman was not the most obvious material for a stage play. What was your first reaction when Sharon Gless bought the option and you found out that a play was in the offing?
JJ: I had no reaction. I thought well okay, here they go offering money and probably nothing will actually happen. So I took the money and shut up. Then “they,” Sharon and Jane Prowse and Brian Eastman the producer and everybody started being so nice to me I became emotionally involved in the play and all the people who have worked so long and so hard to make it a success. I am moved to tears if I let myself think about it. So I don’t.
VL: Jane Prowse wrote a lovely piece for us about writing sex for the stage and made teasing reference to portraying an orgasm without triggering a mass audience walkout. I’ve signally failed to find out how she actually achieved this. I don’t suppose you could give us a clue?
JJ: According to Sharon, she and Jane Prowse discussed the length and intensity ad infinitum, rehearsing different versions. To my mind, the orgasm on stage is too damn long. It’s fine to have one but a whole different thing to watch one. Sharon has told me that they shortened it. I hope so.
VL: Casting an eye over the multitude of internet reviews of the book, it’s immediately obvious that they fall into two camps – the larger (by several magnitudes) is the “wonderful, honest, funny book that changed my life”, while the smaller tends towards the “the Scarlet Woman will burn in hell” school of thought. How did your friends and family react – to the whole adventure and to the book?
JJ: Friends and family who were shocked but who had to face me spoke quickly about their “favorite part,” the chapter on San Quentin. And then all was silence. My son has not read the book or the ad or seen the play. He does not plan to either. I think that’s best. Many and most of my friends and family have been wonderfully supportive though none of them has offered to get me a date.
VL: The play had a short sell-out run at the Riverside Hammersmith to almost universal praise – which is a tribute to you, Jane Prowse and of course, the wonderful Sharon Gless. It’s now moved to the Aldwych, where it’s running until January 14th. What plans, if any, thereafter?
JJ: I don’t know. I hope it moves to Atlanta because that’s where my ex-husband lives.
VL: You followed ‘A Round Heeled Woman’ with ‘Unaccompanied Women’ and then turned to fiction, I believe, but are still looking for a publisher? And a book about your teaching experiences – which I’d find fascinating – because (sorry) I actually found the sections of the book about teaching more interesting than the sex … Can you tell us about those?
JJ: See? You liked the San Quentin chapter better, too, or so you say. My book about teaching is called “40 Years in the Trenches: The Liberation of an American Teacher.” It’s good. Right now I’m writing an epistolary novel called “Mrs. Bennet Has Her Say,” a sort of Pride and Prejudice from the mother’s point of view and in defense of her. Is she a silly air-head? In every movie you’ve ever seen? In Austen’s novel? Of course she is and so would you be if you had been married at 15 to a laze-about bibliophile and satyr, had 5 babies in 7 years….and I could go on and am in the process of doing so.
VL: My very, very favourite moment in the book is when you come face to face with the original manuscript of Anthony Trollope’s ‘Miss MacKenzie’ … I identified so completely with that sense of awe – that there was nothing between you and the author and the words he wrote. Trollope is a bit of a marmite author, I always feel. People love him or hate him, but seldom feel lukewarm about him – I wonder why that would be?
JJ: I don’t know anybody who hates him; most people are ignorant of him or just uninterested in long books where the hero is a woman. Some dismiss him as trivial; I find him profound in a way Dickens is not. Only George Eliot gets the jump on him. On them both.
VL: And finally, it’s a Vulpes Libris custom to ask our guests to nominate their five favourite books, plays or poems – with reasons. The floor is yours …
JJ: Are you kidding? This would take years! My favorites change all the time but well, there’s David Copperfield because I got to teach him to thousands of high school students and lived to tell the tale. Last month it was Colum McCann’s “Let The Great World Spin” because it is rich with just the right amount of detail and stories that do indeed make the world spin. Ummm, anything Diana Athill writes, oh dear my Anglophilia is showing. Okay, Jonathan Franzen is the great American novelist but so is Philip Roth. I am mad for the poems of Wislawa Szymborska and Philip Larkin. And here is William Carlos Williams, the American poet: “It is difficult/To get the news from poems/Yet men die miserably every day/For lack/Of what is found there.”
VL: Thank you very much indeed for your time – and good luck with the play – and finding a publisher.
JJ: And thank you for not asking whether or not Graham and I still sleep together.
A Round-Heeled Woman, starring Sharon Gless as Jane Juska, is running at the Aldwych Theatre from now until January the 14th.
(Moira will be reviewing both ‘A Round-Heeled Woman’ and ‘Unaccompanied Women’ on Vulpes in the New Year.)
Cross-Atlantic cultural exchanges happen this week in Vulpes Libris.
Monday 30 June: With the new version of Roots starting Monday on US television, Jackie remembers the impact of watching the original.
Wednesday 1 July: Kate wonders about the flaws in Barbara Pym's Jane and Prudence.
Friday 3 July: Guest reviewer Susan from The History Chicks podcast and the Kansas City Star goes back to This is Where The World Ends by Amy Zhang.