When I first opened An Unsuitable Princess, Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s fantasy/memoir hybrid, I was at first unsettled to see that almost half the book was in footnotes. That’s not usually the kind of thing I go for. But then I started reading, and LaForge plays with form in this brilliant, mad-scientist sort of way: the main text is a medieval love story, and she sneaks her own personal narrative into the footnotes.
In the main body, we meet Samuel Bright, the son of a blacksmith who is enlisted in the king’s army to go off and fight the wars that is the typical whims of the royalty. Samuel has a special relationship with Jenny, a mute stable girl who is the town outcast and, some say, a witch. LaForge spins intrigue throughout, and ultimately, it’s unclear who really saves whom in this love story. All the while, your eyes drift down to the footnotes, where we meet Jane, growing up in Laurel Canyon, outside Los Angeles, during the hippie era. Her adolescence is spent at the renaissance faire and navigating her complicated relationship with Sam, her first love, who is dying from cancer.
I spoke to LaForge shortly after the release of the book.
The Rumpus: You write poetry and you write fiction, and it looks like you started off with poetry—is that the case?
Jane Rosenberg LaForge: Well, actually, I started off with fiction—I have an MFA in fiction, but not much was happening with my fiction, and then I had a baby… and then I didn’t have time to do anything.
Rumpus: I do hear that they take up a lot of time.
LaForge: So actually, I started writing poetry after that, because it seemed to be a lot faster, and the poetry was more successful than the fiction. But yeah, I actually started off with fiction.
Rumpus: Okay—well, I don’t know what the proper poetic term is, but you seem to write a lot of longer, more narrative poetry—does that happen organically, or do you just prefer to work in that style?
LaForge: Well, I would say that my poetry is really organic and spontaneous. I’m not a really educated poet—I don’t know much about form, I don’t translate languages—which is what a lot of poets do—I’m not a poetry expert. So, I guess, that’s just what sort of happens naturally, that longer narrative form.
Rumpus: I like how in your memoir you have a mix of all three forms, a kind of fiction/fantasy narration, and then you have your memoir, and then you have bits of poetry in the fantasy part. What I really love about books that have very experimental layouts—and yours is definitely one of the most experimental I’ve ever seen—did that happen organically as well? Why did you choose to do that with your memoir in the footnotes, as opposed to a more straightforward memoir?
LaForge: That’s a good question. There are many answers. I had an idea for a piece of fan fiction that would be annotated—so I would write the fan fiction, and then I would explain why I was doing what I was doing in the footnotes—and I never really got around to writing that. That was just an idea that I had. And then, as I was writing the fairy tale, I realized that the fairy tale was very… pedestrian. It’s the same story, over and over again. And in order to make something out of it, if I put footnotes on it, I thought it would make it more interesting. And by the same token, if I wrote the memoir, the events of the memoir were also very pedestrian—you know, everybody feels misunderstood as a teenager. The story of the leukemia victim is very 1970’s TV “Movie of the Week.” Separately, I don’t think they mean much. But the combination of them together… I think does mean something. And as I was writing the memoir, and as I was writing my memories of junior high, you know, teenage girls writing poetry, I thought, “You know, this would be good to have the protagonist of the fairy tale speak in poetry, since she cannot speak in any other way.” And that it would fit in with the footnotes. So, I had a couple of poems that sort of fit anyway—I had to change them a little bit—and then I just wrote some more. So, I’d had the idea of an annotated story for quite some time, it just took a few years’ time to figure out exactly how I was going to do it.
Rumpus: When I started reading it, it took me a while to get into the rhythm of the switching between the narratives—depending on how long the blocks of the narratives were, I’d find myself so absorbed in the fantasy that I found myself equally drawn to both, and I enjoyed the parallels I was seeing between the stories—really seeing how one narrative really did help the other. With that in mind, do you have a preferred way that a reader should approach this?
LaForge: At a certain point, I realized that the memoir was going to have to stand on its own, that the memoir was going to have to be chronological. So I don’t really think I have a preferred way of approaching it—that’s up to the reader. But I think that it is possible to look at either one by itself. So you could read the memoir and then the fairy tale, or vice versa, but really… that’s up to the reader. For me, there is a point where they cross over, and that’s a very specific point to me. But at the same time, I feel that the footnotes in the fairy tale refer back to very specific points in the memoir, and vice versa, and not everyone will agree with me on that. But there was one point where I really tried to make it “flip.” But I still do believe that they can be read separately and you can still get something out of them.
Rumpus: What was that specific point of intersection—the one you mentioned?
LaForge: There’s a point where Sam is in the hospital and he’s hooked up to all the machines. That’s at the same time that Sam is Samuel in the fairy tale, and he’s locked up in all the tree branches. So I wanted to have this idea that Samuel can get out of the tree branches—he eventually walks through—or he crawls through. But Sam, in the hospital, he cannot disconnect from the machines, the things that are delivering medicine for him. After Samuel gets through the trees, he has accomplished something. Whereas Sam is just sort of—well, it doesn’t go uphill for him. Once he’s tied up to the machines in the hospital, things are not going to go well for him. So that’s where I thought I had really tied it together—that’s where I purposefully tied it together. But I guess the readers are going to decide whether I did that or not.
Rumpus: That did stick out in my mind—just like you mentioned, the parallel where Samuel is able to get free and Sam is just trapped—I liked the picture in my head that presented. So, you talk about Laurel Canyon, and I was definitely a “Valley Baby” at one point—so, do you miss anything about Laurel Canyon? What is it that you miss?
LaForge: I miss the way the air felt up there. And I miss the sound of the trees up there. I miss the sounds, the way it felt to be up there, away from the city—but really, you weren’t away from the city, you were in the middle of it. Plus, it was where I grew up, so I knew all the associative memories I have of that place. But you should understand, I didn’t grow up in the canyon, I grew up in the hills. The hills were not the canyon. It’s practically the valley.
Rumpus: So, how long have you lived in New York? I’ve never been to New York. How would you describe the literary scene there?
LaForge: I’ve been in New York since 1998, and there are many literary scenes here. There are literary scenes that I have no access to—you know, the Big Five publishers, the people who write for the New Yorker, the people who get published in GRANTA, Ploughshares—I have absolutely no access to that scene—that is way beyond my pay grade.
Rumpus: Do you like working with indie publishers, like Jaded Ibis?
LaForge: Oh, yeah. It’s a lot easier—you don’t have to pretend to be someone else. There are different levels of even the indie scene here. I don’t really know about them, that’s just from my own observations. The people I know here are people like George Wallace, who curates a number of reading series here, he’s the poet-in-residence at the Walt Whitman residence. I believe he was poet laureate of either Nassau or Suffolk County—he has a little scene going on in New York, and he’s been very nice to me. But I wouldn’t say I’m particularly attached to any particular scene. There’s the New York Poetry Society, and they publish books—I really have nothing to do with them, but I see their scene—they tend to be much younger than I am, so I’m not really a part of it. There’s something called the New York Poetry Brothel, and I actually don’t really know what it is [laughs.] I just see pictures of it. I’m definitely not a part of that. There’s a lot of burlesque with poetry here. And I am not a part of that. [laughs] There’s just a lot of different scenes here. I mean, when I lived in Los Angeles, there were also a lot of literary scenes, and I wasn’t part of any of them, I just sort of watched. It’s sort of the same thing here. There are a lot of different literary scenes, and I just sort of watch them.
Rumpus: So—and I hate using this term—but when did the “writing identity” come to you?
LaForge: I was a journalist for a long time, and then I went back to school in ’95, to my fiction MFA program. I guess I decided to become a writer in earnest in either ’90 or ’91, when I lost one of my journalism jobs [laughs.] I enrolled in a workshop with Kate Braverman. I guess that was the start of it.
Rumpus: So, as a writer who writes both poetry and fiction, are those two separate things for you, or does one somehow inform the other?
LaForge: I’d say one influences the other—sometimes I write poems that I try to make into stories or essays; sometimes I’m writing a story and I get an idea for a poem because I get stuck on a particular word and I know that word needs a poem, rather than plot development. So yes, they do inform each other. I write a lot of fiction that doesn’t get published, so I’m mostly writing poetry for publication.
Rumpus: So now that your book is out—I can only imagine how much time that takes up, from the writing and editing process through the whole process of publication—but now that it’s done, do you have another project that you’re working on now?
LaForge: Promoting the book. That takes so much attention. I’m really surprised how much attention that takes. So, it’s National Poetry Month, and I’ve been trying to do my “thirty for thirty,” and I’m also teaching, so I’m correcting papers… I have a couple of projects that I want to work on. While I was waiting for Unsuitable Princess to be published, and I didn’t know if it was going to be published, a friend of mine suggested that I write another fairy tale, so I did. But I don’t know what I want to do with it. I don’t know what to do with it, because it doesn’t have footnotes—it’s just a fairy tale. So, I’d like to do something with that. I have a couple of novels I wrote that just never went anywhere… I’d like to someday do something with them. I have another idea for another story, but it would be experimental—a book-length thing with poetry and prose based on Daphne, but I don’t know if the idea is going to grow into anything. I hope it does.
Rumpus: I hope it does. That sounds awesome.
LaForge: Do you know much about Daphne? The Greek myth where she turns into a laurel tree? The laurel tree is what Laurel Canyon is named after. So I thought maybe I would do something with that, but I don’t know, we’ll have to see.
Rumpus: So, I always like asking writers, do you have a certain process—what does a normal sort of writing day look like for you?
LaForge: Well, I used to have a writing process, and then I had a baby… [laughs] So I have no writing process. I write down a lot of fragments, or words, or ideas, and I keep a running list of those, and then when I have time, I do something with it. Now, if it’s the summertime, I may have a writing process—although, this summer I don’t know, because my daughter’s going to be around a lot. Basically, I’m writing when I can. I’m constantly looking for ideas, constantly listening and looking for words. I collect them, and then after a while, I can do something.
Rumpus: So, I’m probably going to phrase this next question a little awkwardly, but what have you learned from this experience? I mean, I think—big project, you get put through the wringer—so, especially now that you’re starting your promotional work and book tour, is there anything new you’ve learned that’s stayed with you?
LaForge: Well, I don’t know if there’s any one thing I’ve learned, but book promotion is hard! [laughs] It’s really hard!
Rumpus: I’ve been witnessing that first hand from a couple of my friends who’ve recently published their debut novels.
LaForge: Nobody wants to have you read, you know? Nobody wants to give you a review. Nobody wants to do anything for you—because what if your book is bad, and they get attached to a bad project? If your book is a failure, they don’t want to be attached to that.
Rumpus: So you’d say that the author is mostly in charge of hustling their own promotion?
LaForge: Yeah. And I mean, everything. The publisher does things, of course—sends out books for review, sends out books to stores… but really, you’re on your own. And not only are you on your own, no one wants to help you. I mean, these bookstores don’t want you in their store, all the blogs are booked up for months in advance, and unless you have some kind of connection, it’s very hard to get any attention… I’m really surprised by that. And I’m talking about independent bookstores! I mean, I guess everyone’s just so scared, because the industry’s in such a crunch. People don’t want to help you.
Rumpus: So, one of my favorite things to ask in interviews, is I like to ask the person I’m talking to, to tell me a surprising detail or fact from your life.
LaForge: Oh, good grief. [laughs] I don’t know, now that I have this memoir, I feel like everyone knows everything about me; there’s nothing left to surprise people with.
Rumpus: Well, your memoir kind of cuts off at a summary—right, I guess, around the college years.
LaForge: Well, yeah, I guess there’s all my college years stuff. Hmm… I don’t know. Can you hold on a second? [Calls out to husband in next room: What’s a surprising fact about my life? That I’m a housewife? Basically!] I’m asking my husband. He can’t think of anything, either. [laughs] I guess… I’m really just a housewife and a mother.
Rumpus: And a teacher. I like that.
LaForge: Well, I’m glad somebody does!
Rumpus: No, I guess, I mean, I like hearing about how everyone’s specific life shapes them. How it shapes their writing. It’s a really interesting conversation that varies from person to person.
LaForge: Well, if I wasn’t a housewife and a mother, I probably wouldn’t have written this book. But I don’t know if what I set out to be was a housewife and mother, either. I mean, when I grew up I didn’t say, “I want to be a housewife and mother.” So I know that definitely shaped the book.
Rumpus: In what way, would you say?
LaForge: My husband was reading to my daughter—all these traditional fantasy stories, and fairy tales, like A Wrinkle in Time, and Lord of the Rings, and something called The Dark Is Rising—and you know, they’re all the same, in the way that the hero is depicted, the trials that the hero goes through—and I’m listening to these stories, night after night, and they’re giving me some of the ideas for the fairy tale. And some of the ideas, I already knew, was aware of, from reading all the stuff that my daughter would eventually be reading, or reading to her myself, so that definitely shaped the story. But I think maybe the idea that the girl is the focus of the story, that she is not just being rescued, that at one point, she rescued the boy, I think that part comes from having a daughter.
Rumpus: It’s always nice to see a strong female character.
LaForge: I don’t know that she’s a strong character, but the fact that she is there—in some ways, she sort of succumbs to all the female stereotypes because that’s what I do—I was raised in that idea of girls were to be rescued, and you lived happily ever after, and all that business. So I had to put a little bit of that into it, too, if I was going to accurately reflect back the period in which I’d been living. I don’t know if I’d have… well, no, I do know that I’d have written it differently if I’d had a son.
Rumpus: I like what you just mentioned about the time you grew up in, and how being married and having a house was kind of like, considered this picture-perfect thing. You also show the—I wouldn’t necessarily call it the dark side—but certainly the underside of all that. What was behind those doors?
LaForge: Well, it’s important to note that my parents raised me so I wouldn’t know any of that stuff. So when people in the neighborhood started getting divorced, and I went to the big bad junior high, and there were latchkey children there—oh jeez, people don’t even use that expression anymore!—[sighs]—there were children that were different than I was… well, that was just horrible to them. They just could not deal with it. And they tried to make a fairytale life for me and my sister. But you can’t do that. It doesn’t matter who you are, eventually it’ll fall apart. And so eventually, I did see the dark side, or the underside, or whatever you want to call it. I think I prefer to call it The Dark Side [laughs.]