Sunday, May 11, 2003

More on my hero, Jane Juska, from PW Daily for Booksellers (May 6, 2003)

Jane Juska on Sex, Writing, and Satisfying Conversation

Jane Juska is this season's literary sensation, the senior citizen who, with "Aristotelian discipline," composed a now-notorious personal ad in the New York Review of Books: "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." The ad graces the cover of A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance (Villard), a book that has broken the top 100 bestseller list a week before publication.

After 27 years of near-celibacy and retired from a successful career teaching high school English, Juska was busy but lonely before she began her adventures. PW praised her chapters on visiting libraries or teaching English to prisoners even more than the randy parts: "Old women looking for sex may not seem a hot topic, but there's something universal in this woman's love affair with the written word." She spoke to PW Daily contributor Norman Oder by phone at her home in Berkeley, Calif.

PWD: You got 63 letters. How many men did you meet?

JJ: Eight, I believe.

PWD: How many are you still in touch with?

JJ: I am still in touch with four and intimately involved with three. And one would like to be, but I turned him down, Robert in the book. He gave me the title, we were talking about promiscuity or something, and he brought up that phrase.

PWD: He was the only one you were in love with.

JJ: I know, but I can get over that, too.

PWD: You got a marriage proposal.

JJ: And I turned it down. I'd have to give up too much; I assume fidelity is part of the contract.

PWD: Are the men you're involved with involved with other women?

JJ: Some are. Some aren't.

PWD: How can you do it emotionally, switch from man to man?

JJ: Oh my goodness. They're so different, one from the other, that I get to be not completely different, but I get to be a fuller person, because they bring out different parts of me. One thing they all have in common is that they're incredibly smart, and they're wonderful writers. So the question is a good one and, in all honesty, sometimes, I do have difficulty, and say: 'Come on Jane, simplify your life.' But who I would say farewell to?

PWD: Would it be nice if all three lived in Berkeley?

JJ: It would be nice if all three of them lived across the street. Having actual conversations with someone who is not out to win a point or to argue you into the ground is thrilling. Dr. Johnson, when asked if he enjoyed the dinner party the night before, said: there was a lot of talk but no conversation. I have lived a life in which there was a lot of talking, but not much conversation. When I was growing up, I was supposed to behave myself. I told my great uncle at a family gathering, 'You look just like President Truman,' and I was sent away from the table.

PWD: This book came out of a writer's group.

JJ: I didn't intend it to be a book; I was just going to make vignettes. It was terribly embarrassing for me--I'd have to leave the
room and go for a walk. I'd known these people for 15 years. Eventually, I stopped taking it to them. And I stopped writing it as a
novel, because it was a really bad novel, it was so phony. I named myself Nora. I did it because I didn't think anybody would believe if I told the facts. [One of the men] said, you have got to write this as nonfiction; he had read a couple of chunks.

PWD: You dedicate the book to Gene. Who's he?

JJ: A man who I knew from the Bay Area Writing Project, the first person who ever said he liked my writing. I'd write in a diary and say, 'What if Jane Austen saw this,' and I'd slap it shut. That voice prevented me from writing until 1982. He continued to nag me, for the next 20 years, and then he died. He took me literally by the elbow one day and said, 'we're going to the library and I'm going to show you something.' He showed me LMP and said 'someday, you're going to need it.' That's how I got my agent.

PWD: How many of the men read it?

JJ: Three. They've been absolutely wonderful. One in particular was enormously helpful getting me through this. He sort of took Gene's place, saying 'You can do it.'

PWD: TV producers would like the men to appear with you.

JJ: I wouldn't do that. Nor would they. One of them said, 'We're very private people, that's why we answer ads.'

PWD: How different is the book from the manuscript?

JJ: The chapter on my son was not there at all. My agent said, 'Your manuscript raises so many questions.' I asked myself, 'Jane, were you just meeting men?' No, I was very busy, doing this other stuff. Then the question came up: 'Jane, what were you doing 'til you were 67?'

PWD: Your thirtysomething niece was upset about you getting involved with a man more than three decades younger. Have you patched things up with her?

JJ: Well, yes. It's just something we don't talk about anymore. I don't think she would change her mind. But she's delighted by all
these goings-on, and she's very supportive. I got an e-mail from someone who said, 'I don't understand what such a young man would want with a 70-year old person.' I guess you'll have to read the book. I don't really feel a need to mount a defense.

PWD: Was it hard to write about sex?

JJ: A man in my writing group gave me a book called The Good Parts, excerpts of writing by famous people about sex. I read Updike's and thought, he can't do it, either. And he's such a fine writer. It gave me courage to go ahead and just write about the sex part and not worry about how badly I was going to surely do it.

PWD: You're writing another book about teaching.

JJ: It's tales from my classroom. I've been a teacher for 40 years. So, how is my teaching informed or influenced by each of those decades? The working thesis is that in order to be really good at something, you have to be willing to get fired. It again is a book about bending the rules. I don't have a publisher yet. But I have an agent, and she likes it.

PWD: What does your son think?

JJ: He's terrific. He said, 'Go get 'em, Mom, it's your turn.' But he's not going to read the book.

PWD: The New York Times ran a Styles section profile two weeks before publication.

JJ: And I went up to the mountains. Because I thought the phone would ring, and everything would happen, and it did. The memory on my phone machine was full. My e-mail was unbelievable. When this book got sold, I'd wake up in the middle of the night and see this headline, 'Interesting Story, Poorly Told.' The reviews have been incredible. I don't care if the world knows about my sex life, but the first bad thing anybody says about my writing, I'm going to the mountains again.

PWD: Do you have advice for women in a similar situation?

JJ: I just do not want to give advice. I'm not an expert. I do think, sometimes, people die early, they sort of give up on everything. But I would not advise everybody to do this.

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