In Jessica Chiarella’s (LAS ’09, MA ’14) debut novel, “And Again,” readers encounter a world very similar to our own. Characters ride the “L,” visit the Museum of Contemporary Art and page through the Chicago Tribune. But the four Windy City-based protagonists differ from us in one enormous way. Each has participated in an experimental medical procedure for terminally ill patients called SUBlife; in short, they are clones of their old selves.
It’s not long until Hannah, David, Connie and Linda realize the limitations of their new, healthy bodies. Hannah struggles to regain her artistic talent. David encounters the same demons that dogged his previous life. Connie deals with Hollywood’s idealization of beauty. Linda copes with guilt and family resentment. The price of perfection is more than any of them bargained for.
Learn more about “And Again” in the interview below, and then join Chiarella as she reads from her novel at the John T. Richardson Library on Tuesday, Jan. 26, at 6 p.m. The event is free and open to the public. Learn more about the event here.
Walk us through the conception of this novel. Where did you come up with this idea? What made you interested in clones?
I came up with the idea of SUBlife because I was thinking a lot about our societal ideas regarding miracle cures—this sense that if you can find the right supplement or take a certain medication, it will fix whatever is wrong with you—and how flawed that idea is. I started thinking about what a miracle cure would actually need to look like, and I realized it would have to be something completely holistic—like getting a completely new body. So the idea of cloning was sort of secondary to the concept of the cure itself. It just seemed like a reasonable next step, to get a new version of your own body instead of a different one, since getting a completely different body would probably be much more psychologically damaging.
There are four protagonists in this novel, and their stories interweave throughout the story. Why did you give yourself the difficult task of featuring four main characters instead of one?
That was actually something I decided to do after I’d written a complete first draft from Hannah’s point of view alone. I realized that I’d created these secondary characters for her support group meetings, and I was walking around all day thinking about Linda and Connie and David. It became really obvious that these characters needed to be more fully realized because so much of what was interesting about them was happening off the page in the original draft. As soon as I started writing them, the book became much more compelling.
None of the clones are very happy after the transfer, and they all struggle with their identities and what it means to be reborn. How did you put yourself into their shoes? What experiences did you draw on to make their emotional and physical responses seem so real?
I spent a lot of time thinking about the body and identity even before I started working on this particular novel. It’s a concept a lot of us have to grapple with constantly throughout our lives—how does the way I look relate to who I am? And I think the ease with which I could put myself in their shoes had a lot to do with having recently been a teenage girl. Young women are constantly taught to see their bodies as separate from themselves, as something to love or accept or hate or care for or control. So that was really the starting point for me, knowing what it felt like to live in that place of separation and the toll that it can take.
What does your writing process entail?
Writing this novel was a very intense process. I wrote it in Associate Professor Rebecca Johns-Trissler’s Novels I & II courses in the Master’s in Writing and Publishing program, so basically I had to write 60,000 words in a ten-week quarter, take a week off for spring break and then revise it in the next ten weeks. In addition to having a full-time job and class once a week, I had to fit 1,000 words of writing a day into my life. It essentially meant that for the hour or two in the evening when I’d usually relax, after I got home from work and cooked dinner and did my dishes, I’d write instead. I’d write for as long as it took to get to 1,000 words and then I’d go to bed and repeat the whole thing the next day. It was a really painfully monastic way to live for a while, but I think it did help me sort of immerse myself in the story in a way that I wouldn’t have been able to if I’d had a lot of other things going on. My friends did get a little worried when they stopped hearing from me for weeks at a time, but in the end it certainly proved to be worth it.
Are there any techniques or strategies you learned as a graduate student at DePaul that helped you elevate your writing and become a published author?
I think the most beneficial aspect of being at DePaul was that it consistently put me in a place with other people who took writing seriously. It’s not an easy thing to tell the people in your life that you want to be a writer. So showing up every week to a class with a group of people who not only understood and accepted that ambition, but also were immensely talented and supportive and generous with their feedback, was exceptionally helpful.
Your novel has received advance praise from the likes of online magazine The Millions, Pulitzer Prize finalist Laila Lalami and Kirkus Reviews. What has that been like?
It’s been an incredibly humbling experience. Especially for a debut novel, when you’ve never actually put anything out into the world before, there’s a lot of trepidation about what the response will be. And I’ve been absolutely floored by the willingness of writers I so admire, like Laila Lalami, Susan Straight and Rebecca Johns-Trissler, to lend their support to the book. Their help has really made all the difference for me.
What’s next for you? Are you working on something new? Are you going on tour to promote your novel?
I’m getting my MFA right now at the University of California, Riverside, so I’m writing another novel as my thesis. It’s also set in Chicago and is about a couple of generations of women who can see imminent death by touching people.