Today we travel to Los Angeles to chat with Jane Rosenberg LaForge about how the Amherst MFA program, creating a magazine, being an adjunct professor, radio, metaphors, physical problems, hospice, Felix the Cat, a great memory, and journalism come together as part of Jane’s past and current life.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and worked as a small town journalist after I graduated from college. I attended the University of Massachusetts, Amherst MFA program because I wanted to write a novel based on a court case I covered in upstate New York. After graduating, I got married to a New Yorker. We had a daughter, and I worked as an adjunct professor teaching composition, research writing, and African-American literature. I retired from teaching five years ago, and write full-time.
In which genre do you write?
Fiction, poetry, and essay.
How many published books do you have?
Besides the new novel, I have two books of prose (a memoir, “An Unsuitable Princess” from Jaded Ibis Press, and a novel, “The Hawkman” from Amberjack Publishing) and six of poetry (four chapbooks and two full-length collections; a third full-length collection, “Medusa’s Daughter,” from Animal Heart Press, was published Feb. 16, 2021).
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer and what ignited your author’s flame?
In fourth grade, we created a magazine as a class project. I wrote something about talking to my stuffed animal, a tiny elephant I called “Conveinyent.” Notice the misspelling of “convenient.” The teacher was impressed, said I had some talent. I think he was talking about one sentence in particular, but I took it and ran with it, I guess.
What is an interesting writing quirk you have, that we wouldn’t know by reading your biography?
I suppose it would be just how random my writing process is. I used to find a lot of inspiration in talk radio, hearing a particular word and liking the way it sounded, and wanting to build something around it. With my husband working at home now because of the pandemic, I can’t listen to the radio the way I used to, so I’m watching too much YouTube and television in general.
So it’s visuals that are fueling a lot of my speculation, or metaphors I pick up on that seem like they could be applied in my case. Plus I’m much less disciplined than I used to be, probably because I have all kinds of physical problems, repetitive strain injuries from typing. If I can find a way to avoid writing and justify it in terms of preserving my hands or my back, I’ll take it.
What would you choose as your mascot, and why?
See the answer to “If you were trapped in a cartoon world from your childhood, which one would you choose and why?”
What are you currently reading?
I’m currently reading “From Beirut to Jerusalem” by Thomas Friedman. It’s an “old” book (from 1989) and I’ve read it once before, but this time I’m reading it for research for possibly another novel.
Where did the idea for your most recent book come from?
While my sister was in hospice, it was pretty dramatic. How the nurses took care of her, what was happening with her finances, all the people coming to visit her. There were a lot of people in and out of the house, my friends included. We were only two years apart, so we had some friends in common, although she would say that I stole friends away from her. We had an awful relationship. We never got along. We never recognized it as such but it was a vicious sibling rivalry. Or perhaps we were too much alike.
I always knew this, but the novel gave me a chance to explore the issue, how it happened and what inspired some of the ridiculous ideas we had. I also knew that my sister once wanted a certain kind of life, and because she didn’t get it, she spent a lot of time punishing herself. But even if she had gotten a piece of that existence, it wouldn’t have been enough. It wouldn’t have solved her problems, or what she thought were her problems. I hope that’s what readers will take away from the book, once they’ve digested it.
What do you do when not writing or marketing your books?
I wish I could tell you. I waste so much time, I know I do. But what do I do with it? I don’t know.
What do you miss about being a kid?
I miss the people. I’m the only one left from my immediate family. I wouldn’t say I’m an orphan but I feel like all of my living points of reference in family life, of a shared family experience, are gone. My parents were together until I was 19 but I had better relationships with them after the divorce, for a million different reasons. I miss them, but I miss the relationships I had with them as an adult. As a kid, I lived around the corner from my uncle and grandparents. I really miss them. My other grandmother and aunt lived fairly close by and when my mother was sick for a while, I spent a lot of time with them. I don’t have any first cousins but my parents had cousins; my father’s are gone though my mother’s are still around. I miss all the great aunts and uncles and my father’s first cousins.
If you were trapped in a cartoon world from your childhood, which one would you choose and why?
I am a fan, a collector, an acolyte, and devoted follower of Felix the Cat, so I would definitely want to be in his universe. The Felix the Cat of my childhood was the Joe Oriolo version. That cartoon was a kind of Cold War metaphor; Felix’s magic bag of tricks was like a nuclear secret. The Professor was always trying to get at it, and not for good purposes.
Except for the characters, it was pretty sparsely drawn. But if I could get in there, I would just want to hug Felix and follow him everywhere. I might prefer to be in the 1930’s Felix cartoons, which were very lush and Disney-like; they were done after Mickey Mouse became a big hit and Felix had to compete with him. The earliest Felix cartoons were very adult; Felix would get drunk, mess around with female cats, have children, and abandon them. I don’t think I could deal with that.
If you could turn into one of your characters for a day, which one would it be and why, what would you do?
My memoir, “An Unsuitable Princess,” was experimental, with fictional characters based on real people. There was a novel, a fantasy I cooked up, and there were footnotes which explained how incidents in my life inspired the fantasy. So if I could be my alter-ego in the fantasy, that might be nice. She had magical powers, and was meant to be a far better, braver, and more physically beautiful person than I ever was, or am. But it would have to be in that sanitized, fantasy world, because if I really had to live like that—as an outcast, someone shunned by the community, homeless—I wouldn’t last a minute.
What’s the last movie you watched and why did you choose to watch it?
The last movie I watched was “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” It’s a reconstruction/drama of a historical event that took place in my childhood, so of course I have to watch it. I’m obsessed with that time just as I am obsessed with all the non-historical events of my childhood. I admit it.
Camilla: Wow! I’m adding this to my watch list. Thanks for mentioning it!
Which of your personality traits has been most useful and why?
This isn’t really a personality trait, but I have a great memory. Or people used to tell me that. It’s probably not what it once was, but I remember a lot. Or I believe I do. This could mean that I carry a lot of grudges or negative feelings; that I’m obsessive (and compulsive: the compulsion is to get all of this stuff down).
The Buddhists might say I have a lot of bad or negative attachments. But if I didn’t remember all of this stuff—and it is stuff, random pop culture, the names of all the kids and parents in my neighborhood growing up, weird or funny things people said at one time or another—I wouldn’t have any material.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on two things. The first is a poetry book or chapbook, about an illegal abortion my aunt had in the 1960s, and what it did to our family. I published an essay about it here: https://www.thesmartset.com/narrative-reproduction/ and I’ve written a bunch of stuff that needs some polishing. Maybe it will turn out to be something.
I’ve also started a novel about my experiences in journalism. I was a newspaper reporter for about 12 years before I enrolled in an MFA program. I enrolled in the MFA program to write a novel about one particular story I covered. The finished product was somewhat of a disaster.
This new project wouldn’t be anything like that, covering a different part of my experience and some of the people I met when I thought I was on my way up. Of course I wasn’t on my way up; it was quite the opposite. My career was imploding all around me and I didn’t even notice. That’s just the point. I’m working on it, and doing some research, but I don’t know whether I can pull it off.
Tell us about your most recent book and where we can find it.
My most recent book is “Sisterhood of the Infamous,” a Hollywood murder mystery on top of a story of two sisters growing up wanting to be artists, or famous. One wanted to be a punk rock star and came close. The other became a ballerina, but still thinks of herself as a failure. The sisters are somewhat estranged, until Barbara, the former punk rocker, is bedridden, dying of breast cancer.
Barbara’s sister arrives from New York to sit at her deathbed. Neither sister expects to be the center of attention until police begin investigating the murder of Barbara’s old girlfriend, the pop sensation Jasmine. Barbara’s sister is stuck dealing with the police, Barbara’s finances, and a parade of friends as they come by to either say farewell or possibly just to gawk. Barbara, meanwhile, relives the life she once had, and the relationship that broke her heart.
It was wonderful having you on MTA, and learning more about your current and past life. Wishing you all the best, Jane! – Camilla
Where to find the book: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1734383534/
Connect with Jane:
Amazon author page: https://www.amazon.com/Jane-Rosenberg-LaForge/e/B00MDFY2Z4%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share
Publisher’s page for the new novel, Sisterhood of the Infamous: newmeridianarts.com
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