About a Memoir-in-Essays: An Interview with Faye Rapoport DesPres

Faye Rapaport DesPres
Faye Rapaport DesPres

Sometimes I marvel over the literary connections that the Internet has brought into my life–and the many pages of beautiful, important writing to which they’ve led me. Case in point: I have yet to meet Faye Rapoport DesPres face-to-face. But I feel as though I know her, in part through our social-media exchanges, and in part through her memoiristic writing.

Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of reading an advance copy of Faye’s memoir-in-essays, Message from a Blue Jay: Love, Loss, and One Writer’s Journey Home (Buddhapuss Ink). As Faye notes below, “the book chronicles one woman’s middle decade [more about that phrase below, too] and reflects on certain aspects of her somewhat unusual life, but its themes are more universal than that. I think it has something for readers who are interested in learning about different parts of the world, readers who love nature and animals, readers who are examining their relationships, or readers who are searching for answers in their own lives.” I agree, and I’m delighted to help introduce Faye and her book to all of you.

Faye Rapoport DesPres was born in New York City, and over the years she has lived in upstate New York, Colorado, England, Israel, and Massachusetts. Early in her career, Faye worked as a writer for environmental organizations that focused on protecting wildlife and natural resources. In 1999, after switching to journalism, she won a Colorado Press Association award as a staff writer for a Denver weekly newspaper, where she wrote news stories, features, and interviews. Faye’s freelance work has since appeared in The New York Times, Animal Life, Trail and Timberline, and a number of other publications.

In 2010, Faye earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College’s Solstice Low-Residency MFA Program, where she studied creative nonfiction. Her personal essays, fiction, book reviews, and interviews have appeared in a variety of literary journals and magazines. Faye currently lives in the Boston area with her husband, Jean-Paul DesPres, and their four rescued cats. She is an Adjunct Professor of English at Lasell College.

Please welcome Faye Rapoport DesPres.

ERIKA DREIFUS (ED): MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY comprises 18 essay-chapters, plus an introductory author’s note and an essayistic prologue, and epilogue. First question: How and when did you realize that you were writing a collection–or a “memoir-in-essays”–rather than discrete nonfiction pieces?

FAYE RAPOPORT DESPRES (FRD): A part of me always considered the individual essays as part of a collection. Although each essay I wrote was a discrete, separate piece at the time, my goal was to complete a book-length work. I started by publishing individual essays in literary journals, and slowly the number of essays grew and the collection began to take shape. However, the market for essay collections is tough. I remember taking part in an [Association of Writers and Writing Programs] panel that discussed this issue; one-by-one, the panelists mentioned the fact that publishers increasingly want collections with a linking theme or message.

As I gave more thought to my individual pieces, I realized that they represented the slice of life I called the middle decade–the years between 40 and 50. But they weren’t limited to just that, they also pointed toward certain over-arching themes that reappeared time and again. I wrote the last two essays in the book with completing the collection in mind, to help bring some kind of closure and a narrative line.

ED: How did you decide which essays to include in the book and the order in which they would appear?

FRD: That was tough. Originally, working with my agent, I ordered the essays without thinking of them chronologically. I was thinking about them individually, and trying to create kind of an artistic rhythm to the work. I started getting some wonderful feedback from publishers about the quality of the writing, but the collection wasn’t getting accepted. One or two thoughtful editors mentioned that they loved many aspects of the book, but questioned the order of the collection, and whether one or two of the essays fit. Then a publisher offered to look at the collection again if I reconsidered the order and tried to create more of the narrative feel that the panelists at AWP talked about. After following their suggestions, the book was accepted by two wonderful publishers. The publisher I selected asked for one more thing–an introduction. That’s the introductory author’s note.

ED: You’re a graduate of the Solstice MFA program. How much of this book did you write as an MFA candidate?

FRD: I would say about two-thirds of the book was originally drafted while I was working on my MFA at the low-residency Solstice MFA program at Pine Manor College. That’s one of the reasons why the first few people I thank in my acknowledgments are, or were, faculty members at the program. Although Joy Castro no longer teaches at Solstice due to her many commitments as a writer and professor at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, she was my faculty mentor during two of my semesters. Her thoughtful critique had a significant effect on my work. However, I knew when I finished the program that my creative thesis, which was an early version of the book, wasn’t even close to being finished. I didn’t even want my own bound copy. I knew the essays still needed work, and I spent the next several years revising most of them, and adding new ones.

ED: Please tell us more about the book’s publisher, Buddhapuss Ink.

FRD: It’s funny; when I started out, I dreamed of the day my manuscript would be accepted by a major publishing house or a prestigious university press. I got close with a couple of them, and I will forever be grateful to those editors for their encouraging responses. I also received an acceptance from a new, up-and-coming San Francisco publisher called Water Street Press. They have an innovative e-book focused business model (although they do sell paperback versions of their books on their website) and they have published some wonderful writers. I encourage writers to check them out. Their head, Lynn Vannuci, is one of the people who suggested a re-ordering of the essays.

Buddhapuss Ink is an independent press located in Edison, New Jersey, run by MaryChris Bradley, a 30-year veteran of the New York publishing industry. Buddhapuss wanted to publish and market the book in the traditional paperback format, as well as the e-book format. MaryChris sent me an incredible letter outlining not only why she believed in the book, but also the marketing ideas she had in mind. She wanted to produce traditional galleys as well, and go “the whole nine yards.” As a first-time book author, I felt it was important to work with a press that was not only passionate about my book, but would also help me with a significant marketing program. I was so impressed with MaryChris’ passion for books and knowledge of the industry and marketing that I went with Buddhapuss.

And then there was another factor: Their logo is a black cat, and I am a life-long animal and cat lover. Between all of that and MaryChris’s friendly, warm approach, it felt as if the universe aligned. I have been thrilled with Buddhapuss Ink every step of the way. I couldn’t be happier with my publisher, or with being represented by an independent press.

Blue-Jay-Cover-10.2-for-webuseED: What’s your greatest hope for MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY as it begins to meet readers?

FRD: My hope is that the book is recognized both as an enjoyable read for readers of all genres, and as a solid literary work in the creative nonfiction genre. Yes, the book chronicles one woman’s “middle decade” and reflects on certain aspects of her somewhat unusual life, but its themes are more universal than that. I think it has something for readers who are interested in learning about different parts of the world, readers who love nature and animals, readers who are examining their relationships, or readers who are searching for answers in their own lives. I hope it reaches both my contemporaries and an audience of all ages. I hope that readers respond to it positively, recommend it to their friends, feel as if I’ve spoken to them in some way. My greatest hope is that the book is enjoyable for them, and is a success, whatever that means.

ED: Anything else you’d like us to know?

FRD: Writing is hard work. Although most of us think of writing as a solitary life, and a book as a solitary accomplishment, the truth is I never would have completed this book without the help of others. There were so many moments along the way when I felt discouraged. Michael Steinberg, the founding editor of Fourth Genre and writer-in-residence at Solstice, often told me that successful writers are the ones who hang in there despite the discouragement, who stare down the pitcher after a strike and keep swinging (to use one of his baseball metaphors). Message From a Blue Jay comes from my heart and my gut, but I owe a lot of thanks to those teachers, fellow writers, and editors who encouraged me to stick with it, and to believe that I had something to say.

ED: Thank you so much, Faye. Here’s every best wish as you and your publisher launch the book into the world!

A version of this interview appeared in the June 2014 issue of The Practicing Writer. For more about one of the essays, “The Hope,” in Faye’s new book, please visit My Machberet