The Rumpus Book Club chats with Eva Jurczyk about her debut novel, Department of Rare Books & Special Collections (Poisoned Pen Press, January 2022), and its structure, art capers, and more.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. To join the Rumpus Book Club, click here. Upcoming authors include Suzanne Roberts, Laura Stanfill, Yuvi Zalkow, Morgan Talty, and more.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Alysia Sawchyn.
Alysia Sawchyn: Hello hello hello. Welcome everyone, to another evening of The Rumpus Book Club. Hi Eva!
Eva Jurczyk: Hi, everyone, I’m so excited to chat with you! Thanks for having me!
Alysia: Of course! Thank you for coming! First, let me say CONGRATULATIONS on your debut
Eva: Thank you—very surreal to be doing a Rumpus chat when I’ve chatted with a bunch of writers about their books for the Rumpus.
Alysia: *circle of life begins playing in background* I would like to start at the very beginning.
Eva: A very good place to start.
Alysia: I got to take a workshop this summer where a writer posited that all beginnings need to provide both grounding and mystery and Department of Rare Books opens with such a perfect example of this. We have: the protagonist, where she is, what she is doing but then … WHAT WHY
Eva: It’s so tough, isn’t it? Knowing how to start a piece of writing
Alysia: Yes! It is so tough. I was hoping you could tell us about a) the start of the idea for this book, but also b) how/when you got that first sentence.
Eva: I knew where the book ended long before I knew where it started. I think I tried to start it earlier, and do more explaining about where she was and why she had been absent for a bit, but that was wrong. And then I decided I didn’t want Christopher, as a character, to have any real agency, or voice in the story. So I knew we had to start with Liesl, getting thrown in on that first day And that the rest would get filled in for the reader.
The idea for the book came from working at a rare books library as a grad student – those are spooky and mysterious places with fascinating people who have worked together for TOOOO long and have complicated relationship dynamics.
Alysia: Oh that must’ve been fascinating/terrifying.
Eva: Totally. There are these basements where most of the collections are stored where an ancient rolling rack can tumble down on you at any moment. And you can hear footsteps but not see people.
Alysia: It’s practically begging to be a novel.
Eva: Right? If left to my own devices though, the book would have been those people and that place and that VIBE. But that book wouldn’t have sold. So the mystery helps. And luckily, there’s a long history of people stealing rare books or art and those real-life stories are really interesting, because those are always crimes of passion, which tracked for me, with the type of people I met working there. Not that they were thieves, but they loved the stuff that much.
So, Liesl had to spin that lock and finally get into the safe, and then find it empty
Alysia: It sounds like then the first sentence was problem-solving almost? Like, if X then Y—you backtracked to the beginning, to the first sentence.
Eva: More like figuring out where that first scene should be was backtracking, and then the first sentence was a bit easier. It was active, mysterious (I hope).
Alysia: Ah I see I see! And yes, it absolutely was. I haven’t read a mystery in a long time, and I loved the pacing. It’s like that perfect first sentence, it’s the comfort of the movements but the mystery of the contents and characters
Eva: I’m not a huge mystery reader. I like them but I actually like a noir more if I’m reading in that general area. So I did have to go back and do some reading of stuff I hadn’t read in a long time to figure out what the right tone would be for that beginning.
Alysia: What kinds of other research did you conduct for this book? I’m thinking particularly of the “long history of people stealing rare books and art…”
Eva: That stuff was so fun to read about. There were two kinds of research really: The first was the manuscripts—all of the ones referenced in the book are real and it was so much fun to go through auction catalogues and academic papers and to figure out which manuscripts I wanted to spend time with enough to write about them. And then to figure out what was interesting enough about them to put in the book. Like, what is the gossipy stuff about the Plantin Bible that a reader, but not a rare books librarian would care about.
And then I read dozens of different news stories and longer pieces—you know Vanity Fair or The New Yorker will run these pieces every couple of years about a book or art thief. I really wanted to understand the motives of someone who does that. Because you can’t really re-sell something like a stolen book, or a stolen piece of art, and in almost every case, the thief is on the inside and they just steal the thing because they love it. And then they keep it under their bed or in their filing cabinet forever.
Alysia: Do you have a favorite caper?
Eva: Real life or in fiction?
Eva: In fiction my answer is boring and predictable and a film instead of a book. The Thomas Crown Affair forever. It’s pretty fun and in real life, there was this guy, Shinn, who posed as a professor and stole manuscripts from dozens of libraries. I like his story because the librarians tried all this stuff to catch him and that’s fun to think about—the countermeasures used against this thief.
Alysia: I know you said you worked in a library, and that becomes very apparent to me from some of the details in here like, the librarians sitting around about “how to pay for a collection of letters from the War of 1812 without any new donor money.” Those minutiae that flesh out the world and really spot-on here.
Eva: I think anyone who has ever worked in a cultural institution can relate to how much time is spent thinking about, talking about, worry about money. I really like specificity of detail in all fiction. I just read a crime novel about high school football, and I don’t know anything about football but being immersed in the world was incredible.
Alysia: A deep dive! We’ve been mentioning movies here and there, but that’s the overall effect I think—immersion, as you say. You mentioned earlier on that you didn’t want Christopher to have a voice in The Department of Rare Books—was this initially more like a Fates and Furies structure or was he the narrator or?
Eva: Liesl was always the narrator, but you saw them interacting more. The book started before he fell ill, and you got to SEE her be second in command. So that the reader would also second guess if she was qualified to fill his shoes, but I felt protective of her, and frankly, a bit mad at him.
Eva: Here’s this (imaginary) guy, who has always had things be about him. So in this case, I decided that he wouldn’t get to have a voice. Any conclusions that the reader drew about Liesl (who is admittedly, flawed) they should draw based on her, and not based on her in relationship to Christopher.
I liked to think about the fact that this person who has always exercised this level of control would have to cede it altogether. I think he does eventually get to say a word or two, in the flashbacks. But it’s pretty minimal.
Alysia: I need to put that on a sticky note above my desk: “This person who has always exercised…”
Eva: Listen, in our real lives we don’t necessarily get to decide when someone should cede their power so we may as well get to do it in our fiction.
Alysia: HAH. Speaking of flawed characters: I really love the extra-marital moments Can you talk a bit more about how that subplot came about?
Eva: When I think about an older character, I think about someone who has had a lot of time to fall in and out of love, to make mistakes and make amends for them, and really wanted to express that. Long marriages are complicated and so are long professional relationships. And while the book isn’t ABOUT that, Liesl’s relationship with Francis impacts her decision-making.
In a real life, there’s all this stuff that’s happening with people that isn’t at the centre of your interactions with them, but certainly colours those interactions. So that fact that Liesl has this husband, who she loves deeply, but who she might resent because of his periods of illness, who she has made an active decision to stay with, and that she is every day having to re-make that decision because there’s another option in arm’s reach. I like having all that in the background.
Alysia: It sounds like you’re saying “step 1: pay attention to real life, step 2: write that.” Capturing all the texture.
Eva: I’m going to copy and paste a really valuable note I once got into the chat (it was in a rejection letter): “it lacked that element of dynamism that separates our lives from our art.”
I think about that a lot. That you have to depict real life, but it has to be degrees more intense than real life: weirder, bigger, sadder, more ecstatic, more mysterious.
That rejection note was for a desk drawer novel that never sold but I feel like I owe so much to the person who (rightfully) rejected it. I don’t have an MFA or anything and it can be really hard to just get someone who knows what they’re talking about to tell you what’s wrong with your writing!
Alysia: Amen. Tbh it’s hard even in an MFA sometimes.
Eva: It’s actually why I started doing stuff like doing interviews and reviews for The Rumpus and the like. I was desperate to be edited. Someone just tell me what’s wrong with my writing!
Alysia: Can you say anything about how having that kind of work edited helped with your fiction?
Eva: It’s helpful in two ways. It’s helpful to be reminded that actually you are a good writer. Even if you’re not selling your book, you are good at putting a collection of words together and you should keep doing it. And then there are structural things, even in something like a review, that if you are doing them wrong there, you’re probably doing them wrong in your fiction as well.
For example: Taking too long to express your point or putting your point of view forward too quickly without letting the reader see anything for themselves. Just having someone smart (Monet Thomas! Brian Hurley!) look at your writing line by line—what a gift.
Alysia: <333333 Transferrable skills!
You say “letting the reader see things for themselves,” and I am hoping that you can in these last few minutes talk about the structure of your book.
Alysia: From a simple process perspective: How did you keep track of the timeshifts? But also: How did you want the back and forth movement to work w/ what is revealed to the reader when?
Eva:I should say, that the time shifts came after the first full draft was written, and I knew I wanted to tell the reader more, and it took me a while to figure out how. And first I thought they might just be Liesl flashbacks, but that was wrong. And then I landed on the idea that the time shifts would be the first day of work of all the major characters.
That decision made it easier because once I knew that I was tied to a pretty specific WHEN and I had my idea of the things that I wanted known—because everyone has a secret. In some cases I wanted the flash back to cast suspicion, or to clear someone of suspicion, and in other cases I wanted the flashback to give the reader a secret that they hadn’t been checking for.
I really love Emily St. John Mandel’s earlier books. I love all her books but her first three are crime novels and all of the same things she does in her more well known books – the time shifting, the multiple POVs, it’s all there in the earlier work. And I’m no Emily St. John Mandel, but I really wanted to experiment with using timeline to deliver information, reveal secrets.
Alysia: What I find so interesting (and cannot imagine putting together) is that you’re revealing to the reader but often the characters have known XYZ the whole time.
Eva: Yes! There’s a lot of going back in latter drafts to make that all work.
Alysia: From a reader’s perspective, though, it’s so rewarding! Like treats.
Eva: I think if you like the characters (and not everyone does!) then it’s rewarding to learn a little more about who they are, and why they are acting the way they do.
Because I’m a glutton for punishment I read my Goodreads reviews and there’s a lot of “these characters are too judgemental they drink too much why don’t they watch their language why are they so mean to each other.” All fair criticisms. But again, real people do all that stuff (if you’re reading this chat, please don’t go read my Goodreads reviews).
Alysia: Thank God there is no Goodreads for real life … NEXT DOOR!
Eva: Oh God, Next Door. That’s it. Public shaming for grass length
Alysia: Okay we have two minutes left, and so I will end with the classic Rumpus Book Club Question: What are you currently reading and loving?
Eva: Ok. I just finished this book called The Anomaly by Herve Le Tellier translated from the French. I read it without knowing what it was, and it was bonkers.I’m also reading Zadie Smith’s playscript for The Wife of Willesden which—oh my God, people—it’s so good. And up next is Lemon, by Kwon Yeo-sun, which the cover describes as Parasite meets The Good Son. I’m really excited, and it looks short enough that I can maybe finish tonight
Alysia: Oooo that is a good range! Thank you for the recs. And thank you for joining us tonight!!
Eva: Thank you so much for having me! It’s been lovely chatting.
Author photo by Alice Xue