Street Talk

Jane McCafferty

Jane McCafferty is author of four books of fiction, most recently First You Try Everything, from HarperCollins in 2012. Her work has won awards such as an NEA, the Drue Heinz, and the Pushcart prize for fiction and non-fiction. She is currently working on a children's book, poetry, and essays. She teaches fiction and non-fiction at Carnegie Mellon.

Difficult Negotiations: An interview with Jane McCafferty, author of First You Try Everything.


Braddock Avenue Books: Evvie Muldoone is a fascinating character in so many ways. One of the most compelling things you seem to be doing with her in the novel is exploring the line between eccentricity and mental illness.

Jane McCafferty: You’re right. Most readers, in fact, have read her as a mentally ill character. But I think the category of  “mental illness” is huge, and we use it as an umbrella term because we understand so little about the various kinds of mental illness. We don’t say someone suffers from “physical illness,” because we understand the particulars. Evvie is a very anxious person, and anxiety is a mental illness, and one that’s increasingly common in our culture, as is depression. These illnesses isolate her; one of the reasons she spins out of control is that isolation. She’s not connected to a community in any deep way, and were she, I’d have written a different book. I see this lack of integration into community as common and often devastating, and very American, so that if Evvie’s mentally ill, the illness is, in part, socially constructed and shared by a lot of people. But you’re right—she’s also somewhat eccentric, and her view of the world is not merely a product of her anxiety. I wanted to create an uncomfortable character, someone on the edge who was difficult to love. In general, I’m interested in characters who are difficult to love.
BAB: Evvie is involved in any number of causes. In fact, this character really asks the reader to evaluate their feelings about social engagement.

McCafferty: Interesting. I do see her as genuinely and deeply concerned about the suffering of animals, and she puts that into action, by volunteering at a shelter, and various forms of protest. This is close to her heart. I think her other political concerns are more typical—she attends a protest against the Iraq war in the beginning of the book, but experiences a sense of futility there. She tries to be engaged, but she doesn’t have what it takes to be an activist. In this way, she’s typical of so many people who hate our foreign policy, and who hated, especially, the war in Iraq, but didn’t really organize or know how to fight it. People, like Evvie, are bombarded by atrocious information every day that should, but doesn’t, catapult them.
        I hope that someone reading the book wouldn’t make the equation that someone who cares about animals as passionately as Evvie does is “mentally ill.” I see that as one of her best qualities. I also think her inability to climb on board in a capitalist system that might offer her a more conventional life is rooted not only in her anxious nature, but in the way she sees all the contradictions in culture. The book is set years before the banking collapse and the long recession, and that matters: in the 2013 economic climate, I wouldn’t write characters who are devoted to avoiding the trap of the nine to five job so they can hold onto time and space in their lives. They’d have other concerns—they’d absorb the very real fear that we’re all breathing now about how to pay bills and hold onto jobs and save for retirement in case they get rid of social security, etc… In 2002, everything felt dark because of the lies surrounding the war, but you had much less panic in the realm of money.

BAB: Will you talk a little about the role that music plays in the novel?

McCafferty: I often write characters who are in some way dependent on music to shape their experience. I think we’re all so shaped by pop music in this culture—and that memories are stored in songs. You hear a song from seventh grade and you’re back there in those shoes you never liked. So in writing, which is often about character’s negotiating memory, music makes sense. And Evvie and Ben got together when they were young—in their twenties—when music is generally like the air you breathe. And both of them played music—Ben more seriously, but Evvie was in a band when they met. Evvie has a real passion for songs, and they’re almost like containers where her intense emotion can live for a while.

BAB: There are several factors at work that cause the dissolution of Evvie and her husband, Ben’s marriage. Interestingly, Ben’s evolving relationship to work, money, and status is one of them.

McCafferty: They were trying to extend what is dismissively called “post adolescence” in this country, which often just means, “they’re not settling down and making money.” Together they wanted to value time over money. They wanted to make enough money to get by, but they didn’t want to join the workaday world that pretty much demands you hand most of your life over. When people are living this way in their twenties, we think it’s ok—but then if it goes on longer than that, it’s a problem. We equate being a “winner” with making money, and being a “loser” with not making money, or acquiring status. I think Evvie resists that, as does Ben, but it isolates them. They’re forty. Their friends are having kids and taking vacations. Again, if they had a community of people who were trying to value time over money, it would have turned out differently. But isolation from others will almost always kill a relationship.

BAB: At Braddock Avenue Books, we’ve become fascinated by the oftentimes subtle origins of novels. What writers or works of literature inspired First You Try Everything?
McCafferty: Years ago I read Charles D’Ambrosio’s story “Drummond and Son,” which I still name as my favorite story. My novel is nothing like this story, but I did love the way he depicted a mentally ill character in it. And maybe that was the first seed of my book—thinking of someone who was struggling along those lines. I think J.M. Coetze’s book Elizabeth Costello influenced me, too. That’s a novel about a woman who takes animal rights very seriously. And for years I’ve been reading sacred texts from the world’s religions, and I gave Evvie a bit of that interest and inclination.